christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: April, 2013

What’s happened to all the scarecrows?

An alien with a large white head and purple jumpsuit flaps around a pole at the centre of a Suffolk field. High above, two plastic kestrels are pinned to the sky on wires. In the opposite field, futuristic silver blades flash and glisten in the sun as they spin in the wind. They are mounted on a kind of translucent plastic ball like a prop from an abandoned low budget science fiction film. Welcome then to the world of the 21st century scarecrow.  

While improvements in scarecrow technology might mean higher yields for hard-pressed farmers, it is rather a shame for those of us who have enjoyed the sight of the more traditional looking hay-man. The classic image of the vagabond in tails, top hat with the missing lid, turnip head and body stuffed with straw is now more myth than reality. Nowadays, you are hard pressed even to find something in human form.

Cycling through Essex into Suffolk I did a mini audit, where gadgets, for want of a better word, out-numbered scarecrows at least four to one. What scarecrows there were, were sorry looking creations; little more than a knotted bin bag with the suggestion of a head tied to a post. No flippy-floppy hat, no dungarees, no ghostly Christ-like figure just as likely to scare the local school children as much as the birds.

Scarecrows (or Tattie Bogles, Guys or Murmets depending on where you live) are part of the iconography of our countryside. They form part of the cultural as well as the agricultural landscape of rural Britain and are as much art installation as bird deterrent. Their value in preserving crops and seed has always been somewhat spurious – and in fact there is an argument that says that birds are more useful in fields (devouring insects and other pests) than out of then. They are a link to a more ancient time – when superstition gripped the land and determined a farmer’s fortune even more so that the wind and the rain or birds of the sky. They are mannequin, voodoo doll and false god, bundled up in a slightly tatty Paisley shirt.     

For most, scarecrows are object of fascination rather than affection. To me anyway, Jon Pertwee’s comic grotesque, Worzel Gummidge, was always more hide-behind-the-sofa TV than Dr Who. They are not to be approached, especially from behind for fear of springing into life; hovering on the edge of the animate, they are totally effective in enforcing the unwritten rule never to cross a farmer’s field.

While scarecrows may be disappearing from our countryside, they live on in poetry and song. Syd Barratt, the boy genius of British pop knew the slightly sinister nursery rhyme world the scarecrow inhabits, with his song from Piper at the Gates of Dawn: ‘His head did no thinking/His head didn’t move except when the wind cut up.’ Walter de la Mare brilliantly evokes the doomed man: ‘All winter though I bow my head/beneath driving rain.’ His scarecrow is reawakened by the turning of the season: ‘But when that child called Spring, and all/his host of children come/ . . ./ some rapture in my rags awakes.’   

Read my own poem, The Extraordinary Meditation of the Scarecrow, which suggests where scarecrows travel at night, in my first book The Invention of Butterfly.

Compassionate surrealism – the poetry of Bob Mee

It is most useful to think of Bob Mee’s The Maker of Glass Eyes (Cinnamon Press) as a man trying unsuccessfully to lead a quiet life. The poet’s days are given to the strange, the absurd; afternoons are disturbed by curious, unexplained incident and interrupted by a constant stream of outrageous, uninvited guests. From Gustav Mahler spotted sipping an espresso to Mr and Mrs Shakespeare nursing bacon sandwiches in a café, characters from history, literature and the imagination make continuous, unexpected appearances.  

Many poems are unresolved; beguiling sketches where you are left to draw your own conclusions. The Hat involves a man returning from the fields to find a woman’s hat that he doesn’t recognise on the peg. He goes ‘from room to room’ and calls out: ‘Is anyone there?’ Receiving no answer, he simply returns the hat to the peg. The language is plain and the narrative straightforward and on the face of it, there is nothing particularly poetic about it, but the effect is pleasantly strange and gently philosophical.

The Maker of Glass Eyes

Events unfold around us, the poet seems to be saying; we can either resist, wasting our energies, or simply give them room and watch what happens.  Perhaps not all of these work, such as Early Morning, Herefordshire, where a white haired man pushes a barrow, followed by a black dog. It’s little more than an image; a rural snapshot, balanced pleasingly in black and white, but the poet presents it anyway – almost with a shrug: Here it is, it’s up to you what you do with it. He is not afraid to be simple, and does not pursue the self-consciously poetic line. What makes it poetry is the frame placed around it; its selection from reality.

The family is at the heart of The Maker of Glass Eyes and is the inspiration for some of its best poems. His studies of his son, Jack, as he finds his way with woodworking are acutely observed and admirably restrained: ‘nails in his teeth, in the rain astride a branch/bow saw slung across his shoulder.’ Elsewhere, father and son are fishing together ‘at the edge/of the pond/without need/of words.’ A series of mundane actions ensue; tea is poured, lines are cast – and with a comic’s timing, he concludes: ‘it doesn’t matter what happens.’ The subtext is everything – and the ability to imply tenderness, connection and respect between these two anglers is enviable. These are portraits in words that will be treasured in years to come.   

There is plenty of humour here; some comes in the form of anachronistic observation; Mee has a (glass?) eye for the unusual image – a nun plays cricket on the beach ‘fielding in the sea’ with some boys in football shirts; her laughter ‘floats out across the waves./It should reach Holland by nightfall.’ But there is a tenderness and humanity as well as humour in these images that take them beyond the anecdotal; they are small reminders of our potential for vivacity and shared experience.

Other poems have more elaborate constructs and are increasingly absurd; we stumble upon Nelson and Hardy playing Scrabble before Trafalgar, where the pair argue as to whether ‘URGH’ is a word. A man stands on one left for four hours for a bet, while the wonderful ‘Aunt Mary’ begins: ‘I bought Aunt Mary on the Shopping Channel yesterday’. The conceit is spectacularly well executed and the invention is sustained throughout. It works brilliantly well in performance, but is equally enjoyable on the page; the deadpan delivery is controlled by judicious line breaks and clever repetition, which changes rhythm and pace.            

This is an accessible collection and one that is easy to like; but that is to take nothing away from its seriousness. The sequence about the poet’s father is richly evocative and moving; the period detail of woodbines, Third Class travel and Carnation milk is expertly chosen; it allows us to touch and taste the past. Mee has both a magician’s box of tricks and a painter’s pallet; whether working in simple lyricism or acrobatic surrealism, Mee presents modern fables that resonate in the most profound and unexpected of ways.